Last time we saw that the worship of many solar deities were flourishing in the Middle East, Mediterranean and Europe. In Rome, Mithra (or Mithras) worship was the predominant religion. Mithra was originally the Vedic God Mitra, one of the twelve Adityas of the Rig Veda, the worship of whom reached Rome through Persia, Asia Minor and Syria. He was the symbol of friendship, light, transparency and justice, because of which he used to be invoked in various treaties. In Persia he was called Mithra. There his birth day became 22 December and the festival of ShabeYaldaa was his birthday celebration. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (nearly 2500yrs ago) mentions this festival was the biggest in Persia at that time. In the Zoroastrian religion, Mithra was considered as the mediator between the highest God Ahura Mazda and humanity.
He would lead the dead to heaven, resurrect the dead, will judge the humanity on the last day of the world etc (His role as the judge on the last day comes from Zoroastrian faih as Hindus have no day of judgment). Mithra worship was present in the Middle East at least 3000yrs ago as can be seen from the famous Hittite-Mittiani treaty in which he is invoked. In Syria Mithraism arrived well before the turn of the Common Era. The counter part of Julius Caesar in Syria was Mithradetus (meaning the justice of Mithra). It is believed that the Syrian sea pirates brought Mithra worship into Rome. In Rome he underwent further transformation. Mithras was born on December 25 by emerging from a rock (born of the virgin- Earth), a birth, it is said, attended by shepherds. As an adult, he hunts a sacred bull, captures and drags it into a cave where he slays it with a short sword. From the bull’s blood and semen arise grain and the general vitality of nature. An inscription in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum on the Aventine in Rome says, “You saved us by shedding the eternal blood.” (Of course the blood was of the bull; not of Mithra). There is not enough extant literature about Roman Mithraism (probably the church would have destroyed them when it got power). Almost all we know today is based on the interpretation by modern scholars from reliefs, sculptures and paintings on surviving monuments, mostly in the Mithraea (Mithraic sanctuaries). Mithraism reigned in Rome for about five centuries ending in the 4th century CE. Several hundred Mithraic monuments were found in Rome (Coarelli, 1979). Adapted for Roman taste, the most popular Romanized form of Mithraism was Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, whose re-birth was celebrated as the climax of the mid-winter Saturnalia, on 25 December. Saturnalia honored the “good old days” when the god Saturn ruled a supposed “Golden Age”, and there were no masters and no slaves, and everything was easy.
Thus, it became a reversal-holiday, when the masters served the slaves, and a slave was chosen to temporarily rule the household. Celsus, a second century Roman scholar and critic of Christianity tells us that in the Mithraic mysteries, the soul moved through seven heavenly spheres, beginning with the leaden Saturn and ending with the golden Sun. The lighting of candles, excessive merry making and gift giving were the characteristics of this festival.
Christianity was also present in Rome when Mithraism flourished but with much smaller number of believers. Many scholars have tried to give an estimate of Christians in Rome in the 4th century just before the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Gibbon (History of the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire) allots the maximum number- about five percent of the population in the empire, the bulk of whom are in the eastern part like Alexandria, Antioch and Ephesus. The church fathers were against the believers participating in the Pagan festivals like Saturnalia, even though the church used to lift many of their concepts and practises. But in the early years of the second decade of the fourth century the Roman church received a ‘lottery’- Emperor Constantine got converted to Christianity.
Constantine’s patronage of Christianity resulted in the demise of pluralism in the Roman society as can be seen from the following edicts.
314 CE: Immediately after its full legalization, the Christian church attacks non-Christians. The Council of Ancyra denounces the worship of Goddess Artemis.
324 CE: Emperor Constantine declares Christianity as the only official religion of the Roman Empire. In Dydima, Asia Minor, he sacks the Oracle of the god Apollo and tortures the Pagan priests to death. He also evicts all non-Christians from Mount Athos and destroys all the local Hellenic temples.
325 CE: Nicene Council: Christ is declared Divine.
326 CE: Constantine, following the instructions of his mother Helena, destroys the temple of the god Asclepius in Aigeai Cilicia and many temples of the goddess Aphrodite in Jerusalem, Aphaca, Mambre, Phoenicia, Baalbek, etc.
330 CE: Constantine steals the treasures and statues of the Pagan temples of Greece to decorate Constantinople, the new capital of his Empire.
335 CE: Constantine sacks many Pagan temples in Asia Minor and Palestine and orders the execution by crucifixion of “all magicians and soothsayers” (meaning Pagan priests and holy men). Martyrdom of the neoplatonist philosopher Sopatrus. (From: VlasisRassias, Demolish Them! published in Greek in 1994 in Athens).
Naturally all these effected mass conversion of Pagans to Christianity, creating double problems for the church. (a) The neo-converts had to be given substitute festivals which were not totally foreign to them. (b) The popular Pagan celebrations had to be put to an end. With these objectives, in 354 CE, bishop Liberius of the Roman church decreed that 25 December was the birthday of Jesus, and designated a feast commemorating the Nativity by replacing Mithras with Jesus Christ. According to some scholars, it is possible that the Nativity of Christ celebrations would have started one or two decades earlier, even though there is no clear evidence for this.
The Eastern churches refused to accept Christmas until 375 CE, and the churches in Jerusalem rejected the 25 December date until the seventh century. Some churches celebrated Jesus’ birthday in the spring time and some celebrated it on Epiphany (Divine vision, revelation etc.) which falls between the 5th and the 8th of January. It is believed by the Christians that the Magi (or the three kings from the east) reached infant Jesus on the day of Epiphany. There are still some Eastern Rite churches that continue to celebrate the Christmas on Epiphany date.
John Chrysostom, arch bishop of Constantinople, justified this move around 395 CE: “On this day also the birthday of Christ was lately fixed at Rome in order that while the heathen were busy with their profane ceremonies, the Christians might perform their sacred rites undisturbed. They call this (Dec 25th) the birthday of the Invincible one (Mithras); but who is so invincible as the Lord? They call it the birthday of solar disk, but Christ is the Sun of Righteousness”.
There was a 10th century Mutazilite (a type of Muslim) named Abdul Jabbar al Hamadani. One of his manuscripts (published by Shlomo Pines)TathbitDala’ilNubuwwatSayyidina Muhammad (The Establishment of Proofs for the Prophethood of Our Master Muhammad), ostensibly a Muslim anti-Christian polemic, incorporates much material derived from ancient Jewish-Christian sources. One of these incorporated sources tells us that the Romans and Greeks had a feast called the Nativity of Time (i.e. Chronos) which celebrated the return of the sun in January. They (Christians) introduced into it various modifications and called it the Nativity of Christ or the Nativity. This yet another proof of the church usurping Pagan practices.From all these, it is more than clear that none of the days on which Christmas is celebrated has anything to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
To wind up, we have seen that there was no Christmas for the first three hundred years of Christianity and there was no known attempt from the church’s side for celebration of Jesus’ birthday. In fact, those Christians who do not celebrate Christmas argue that Jesus never commanded or encouraged celebration of his birth day and in the matters of worship and religious celebrations a believer shall never do anything unless there is a specific command of the scripture to that effect. Hence the reason for starting Christmas celebration cannot be religious.
What else could be the reason? With the emperor converting to Christianity most of the nobles of the Roman empire followed him. There were great administrators and strategists among them. Constantine was offered the supreme authority in the church also because of which only he adopted Christianity. Now the emperor and lords started running the church like the state. So establishment of Christmas celebration was a political masterstroke by the new generation of church leaders, of course camouflaged with religion. Thus the separation of the church and state (real secularism) which was the norm with the Pagans came to a tragic end.
Today, on December 25, let us not forget Mithra. As he is the God of light, justice and transparency, let us remember the true story of today’s festival among all the celebrations. Happy Mithra Jayanti to one and all.
To be continued.